Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Girl in the Glass by Susan Meissner

Read while home alone? definitely
Tissues needed? probably not
Overall rating: 5 stars

Meg, an editor living in California, dreams of going to Florence, Italy with her father. Meg’s grandmother grew up there and for Meg, Florence seems like a home she hasn’t visited yet. Meg’s job brings her into contact with Sofia, a native of Florence who is writing a rather unique memoir. Sofia believes she is a descendant of the great Medici family and that the artwork of her city speaks to her. Literally. It seems to be in the voice of Nora, a Medici princess from the 1500’s. Before considering publication, Meg’s editors aren’t sure if the familial claim or voices need to be addressed first. In The Girl in the Glass the stories of these three women wind themselves together with Florence as their perfect setting.

This book was awesome! I love stories about strong women overcoming life’s obstacles, so set that in Italy with just a touch of history and romance thrown in and it’s a perfect book for me. The characters were engaging and I enjoyed floating along with them as their stories unfolded, especially as the three narratives came together. I knew this was a favorite because after I finished reading, I couldn’t jump right into another book—I had to let this one percolate and then settle a bit first. If you enjoy art, Italy, or the Renaissance there’s plenty to like in The Girl in the Glass.

You can visit the author's website here.

What makes a perfect book for you? Do you have a favorite place to “travel” by book?

This is another book I did NOT get at my library. I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review, but the opinions are mine.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Young Adult Spree

I went to the library a few weeks ago and my holds looked like this:

Exciting? Absolutely. Overwhelming? Just a tad. Several of the books were YAs, which I often read more quickly (and enjoy more!) than adult novels. So I decided to group them together and write mini-reviews for each.

Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier, 5 stars
Summary: Gwen knows her family has some secrets, including a cousin with a time-traveling gene. Her cousin’s entire 16 years have been spent preparing her for time travel, while Gwen’s 16 years have been spent as an ordinary 21st century English girl. When the unprepared Gwen suddenly finds herself back in time, she is, obviously, shocked, as is the rest of her family. Now Gwen is in the middle of a centuries-old mystery and has a lot of catching up to do. Who can she trust?

Reaction: This was definitely a page-turner! I don’t usually like fantasy, but time-travel tends to intrigue me, especially all the details that have to be worked out to make it plausible. Gier did a great job with that. The characters were well-written, so that I felt a whole lot of empathy for Gwen and not much for her cousin. The book started with a prologue of an exciting time travel event, but I sometimes feel that’s a too easy way to grab a reader—throw out a thrilling event by itself then slowly build the background. Regardless, I definitely enjoyed the book and have already requested its sequel: Sapphire Blue.

Unwind by Neal Shusterman, 4.5 stars
Summary: The Heartland War between pro-life and pro-choice contingents ended in an odd compromise with two legal choices for parents to end their ties to unwanted children. Option 1 is “storking” where a newborn can be left at someone’s door. The child legally becomes part of that family. Option 2 is “unwinding.” At age 16 parents may choose to send their teenager to a harvest camp where each of the teen’s body parts are harvested and given to others who need them. In Unwind several adolescents cross paths on their way to a harvest camp. Unexpected alliances form as the teens attempt to alter their fates. Can they survive or will they be unwound?

Reaction: As I started describing this book to The Professor, we were both surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did—it’s totally not my usual kind of book. It took a bit to understand the background of the story and it’s definitely a gruesome concept, but somehow it was written in an exciting, but respectful, way. The idea of the pro-life/pro-choice compromise was intriguing and made me think about the current political climate regarding this debate. Unwind was an action-packed, thought-provoking, fast read. So, although this isn’t my typical book, I’m glad I read it!

The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman, 4 stars
Summary: Can a human actually be invisible? Calvin Schwa seems to be. Teachers don’t notice him in class. He sings loudly and wears an orange sombrero in the bathroom, yet kids leaving the bathroom can only say that something strange was going on. How is this possible? Schwa and his new friend Antsy capitalize on the situation, making money for each of them when Schwa is able to listen in on some cheerleaders’ conversation and cut in front of a bully in the lunch line without being noticed. Then Antsy and Calvin’s shenanigans are halted by Old Man Crawley. Crawley and his granddaughter change everything for the boys, leaving the question, “Can a human be invisible?”

Reaction: I didn’t realize this written by the author of Unwind until I was pretty far into the book, and then only because I noted the name. The writing style and subject are so different, which is unusual and refreshing. There are so many themes about adolescents in The Schwa Was Here: self-worth, place in society, friends, dating, adult relationships… That would make it a great discussion starter, but the book was also just an interesting (sometimes heartbreaking) read. I’d definitely recommend this book, and I’m going to look for other books by Shusterman—just to see what else he can write about!

My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr, 4 stars
Summary: Ellen loves her brother Link. She’s IN love with Link’s friend James. The trio spends a lot of time together, but when Ellen brings up the issue of James and Link as a couple, their delicate balance is thrown off. Each of them must work to find a new place in a redefined relationship.

Reaction: An interesting, fast read. Some parts were a little fuzzy, others hard to believe, but overall a thoughtful story about growing up, figuring out identity and navigating tricky, unwritten social rules.

I’m looking forward to more YA reads…have you read any good ones lately? Which of the books above sound good to you?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Up From the Blue by Susan Henderson

Read while home alone? definitely
Tissues needed? yes
Overall rating: 5 stars

Up From the Blue tells two important parts of Tillie Harris’ life story. The book jumps between the year she was eight years old and her current life as a pregnant woman in labor. Tillie’s childhood was interesting with a father in the military and a mom whose moods were unpredictable. Tillie struggles to be loved, make friends, and understand her world. The adult Tillie still has some unresolved emotions about her family that will impact her soon-to-be-born child unless she can work through them. Family tensions run high throughout the book, leaving the reader wondering how Tillie’s life will ever work itself out.

This is Susan Henderson’s first novel and it’s an outstanding one. I enjoyed the alternating stories, and Henderson expertly wove the pieces together to help me understand just how past events shaped Tillie’s present. Tillie’s mom was portrayed with compassionate realism, a tough line to walk. Henderson managed details perfectly: enough to draw me into the story, but she didn’t overdo it.

This was a surprise find for me on the “New Book” shelf at my library, and I’m so glad I picked it up! I’m looking forward to reading Henderson’s next offering.

Is there one year in your life that had a significant impact on you? What effect does a daughter’s relationship with her mom have on her as a mother? Have you found any great new authors lately? 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin

Read while home alone? definitely
Tissues needed? not even one
Overall rating: 4.5 stars

In Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin spends a school year working on various aspects of her home life in an effort to be a happier person. She tackles areas such as possessions, marriage, parenthood, time and body by making resolutions that promote happiness. She strives to be herself, but better by valuing her possessions and by being more aware and appreciative of the loved ones in her life. Rubin makes the point numerous times that what makes one person happy may not make someone else happy. So while this is more documentation of a personal journey than a traditional self-help book, there are plenty of ideas that can be applied directly or interpreted to fit the needs of the reader.

I really enjoyed this book! It wasn’t a fast read for me, but it was definitely worth my time. Many of Rubin’s ideas weren’t exactly new to me, but I often need a reminder about the obvious.

Some ideas I liked and want to incorporate into my own life:
  • Holiday Breakfasts: a simple way to mark special days like Valentine’s Day by having festive placemats and table decorations (but simple!) and heart-shaped toast or red milk on cereal. I’m seeing lots of days with new meaning: Cinco de Mayo, Flag Day, 1st day of fall…
  • Wednesday Afternoon Adventures: Rubin and her older daughter take turns picking a destination or activity after school on Wednesdays. The adventures are generally low/no cost and allow them to be home by suppertime. I think this would be a fun tradition.
  • Give warm greetings and farewells: not much explanation needed here, right?
  • Suffer for 15 minutes: and be happy?! Rubin is referring to spending 15 minutes per day working at something that desperately needs to be done, but that you REALLY don’t want to tackle. Having a time limit and a dedicated time to complete a task are supposed to increase happiness. I’ll let you know when my closet gets cleaned!

Rubin is also the author of The Happiness Project. I haven’t read it, so I’m not sure if this one would have been even better with that as a background. I have put it on my request list, though!

You can see a book trailer for Happier at Home here.

What makes you happy?

This is one of the few books I did NOT get at my library. I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review, but the opinions are mine.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Deeper than the Dead by Tami Hoag

Read while home alone? mmm…probably wouldn’t
Tissues needed? No.
Overall rating: 3 stars

A serial killer with a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” theme is on the loose in an idyllic California town. A group of 5th graders discover a body and their lives dramatically change. Enter their teacher, parents, a shouldn’t-be-alive FBI agent, and a sheriff’s department full of personalities for quite a range of characters.

Deeper than the Dead was written in 2010, but set in 1985—a time when computers for all were in the distant future, “profiling” was a new pseudo-science, and fingerprints were matched by hand. The author notes this in a forward and it makes the story an interesting, if sometimes frustrating, one. I kept thinking, “Check the internet! Scan those pictures and send them out to all the other police departments in the area! Use your cell phone!” Alas, none of those were options for most law enforcement folks in 1985. I did enjoy some of the culture throwbacks mentioned in the book—clothing, music, hair styles. I could definitely picture friends and myself in some of the scenes.

The story line kept my interest with some interesting twists. I had a good idea whodunit by midway through the book, though there were two candidates in my mind and it wasn’t until the last part of the book that it was clear. Some of the descriptions of what happened to victims were a little graphic for my taste, but I just skipped over those sections when necessary. The bit of romance thrown in was nice, but not a big addition to the book. The relationship between the teacher and her dad was just weird to me. Again, it didn’t add much.

The conclusion wrapped things up for the most part, but didn’t give me complete closure. The kids involved in finding the body are given closure, but it was weak. I’m not satisfied with where they ended their stories. The teacher and her dad just kind of finish the book without an ending. And some of the parents are left mid-story as well.

In all, it was an interesting read, but not high on my list of recommendations. I’ve read other books by Tami Hoag that were much more enjoyable.

Because I was a teacher, I hold books that include teachers as characters or schools as settings to a different standard; what are your "special standard" characters or settings?